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Clock of the Long Now

I chose to write about “Clock of the Long Now” by Stewart Brand. A book, documenting a cultural project, emphasizing the passing of time and its significance to humanity. But let me start with Mathematics.

In fact, one of the best introductions to the concept of “The Long Now” isn’t given in the book itself, but rather in Brian Hayes’ book, “Group Theory in the Bedroom”, which tells the story of the Strasbourg astronomical clock, located inside the city’s cathedral. Calling it a ‘clock’ is like calling your laptop a calculator; While it fulfills that role in some way, designers have taken a few choices to extend it’s functionality to a slightly more advanced area. The clock of Strasbourg is a time-telling machine, more rather a time-and-space telling machine. A computer.

Telling time is big business

Building a mechanical calendar, you see, isn’t so easy. In fact, the research of Calendrical Calculation is still an active business in Applied Mathematics. There’s a good reason for that: Calendar systems were built upon observation, with very crude instruments. The Gregorian year had a good reason to be just that, at the time it seemed like a good approximation of the cycles of the earth- now it makes a lot less sense. There’s something inherently flawed in any observation-based approximations – small shifts in initial conditions may later cause the approximated system to spin out of desired control. When ‘later’ happens in the observable future, the system is said to be Chaotic.

Chaos is essentially what happened to most religious calendars. Ramadan will occur in any season,  the Jewish calendar adds an entire lunar month (!) every 4 years to keep Rosh Hashana in balance, and the well-adjusted Gregorian seems to have suffered very little with that nimble leap day, but calculating Easter still seems to be a pickle, and modern Physics decided to give it a gentle slap of reality with the discovery that the earth is, in fact, slowing down.

Telling accurate time involves adjusting the time model to those quirks in the real world as they are discovered. That’s why the story of the Strasbourg clock is significant. It was built three times; Once in the 14th century, working for less than 200 years, again in the 16th century, with a slightly more advanced time telling mechanism – again, stopping after less than 200 years, and later in 1841, with an amazingly complex gear system, capable of correcting the precession of the equinoxes, with a cycle of approximately 25,000 years. Achieving that requires some advanced cycle calculations and very, very precise gears. Some components in this machine were planned to only be triggered once every 400 years, while others were planned to complete a loop every hour. Someone working for something greater than himself and his generation (the Church – greatness too is transient) built a component that wouldn’t complete a cycle until 25 thousand years have passed.

Someone, in his right mind, thought that far into the future, used everything he knew about the world, and sent his time capsule forward.

Time is subjective, culture is chaotic

“Clock of the Long Now” is riddled with tales on the perspective of time. The Ancient Egyptian culture, with its different permutations, lasted 3000 years. 2000 years later, modern western culture was still struggling to understand and recreate their language. Prior to the Egyptians, humans have been around, with conditions to form a culture around agriculture, some 5,000 to 7,000 years, with the gradual ending of the ice age. None of the cultures from that time exist today. Moreover, cultures seem to be lasting an increasingly (decreasingly?) shorter period of time, yet appear to be lasting longer. With the advancement of crafting technology more relics can be found from any era. Georgian era artifacts may be popular but scarce in antique stores – Victorian era paraphernalia are slightly more common due to the concurrent industrial revolution; But these days, American Apparel started selling mass-produced fanny packs from the 80’s.

The human perception of time in retrospect may be related to the concatenation of memorable events. This world is full of events, the internet turned it into the most massive documented history so far, Metcalfe’s Law predicts an even further explosion in orders of magnitude of information according to its size, and this is even before discussing a possible change in the human thinking machine itself, with Ray Kurzweil’s controversial idea of the Singularity. In other words – Time, as we know it, is accelerating.

But there’s another contributing factor to our short and selective memory. History itself, even if not written by the victors (sorry), is at the very least curated by them. The history of book burning, from the library of Alexandria (containing hundreds of thousands of irrecoverable manuscripts in classical arts and science) to the prosecution and execution of intellectuals during the Khmer Rouge period tells us one important thing about the humanity: humanity keeps forgetting. Documentation of hundreds of years of evolution may be wiped in mere months (for example, the extinction of the Mayans). The increase in artifacts does not, in any way, equate to an increase in collective knowledge.

In order for humanity to learn anything new, says the author, it must meditate on its past.

Build a bigger clock, then

The actual clock of the long now, the one that the book revolves around, is being built. Like the Strasbourg clock, it’s a mechanical time-telling computer. Unlike it – it’s a boolean-logic (digital!) machine, with stacks and registers, built mechanically. It’s not a fast construction project, the thought behind it is for such a clock to be able to survive 10,000 years. The project was planned to have one site in a city and one in the middle of a desert.

In it, there would be multiple chambers, for people to walk inside the computer. It would have a library, curating as much as possible significant history of each human era. The clock would signify the objective passing of time, in terms of the relative passing of cultures. It is designed to be maintained by humans (not machines), to cooperate (not compete) with multiple religions, and to hopefully survive any future dark ages, in which prior knowledge of the world is wiped out.

“The Clock of the Long Now” ultimately addresses the inherent inability of any finitely-resourced culture to predict the future. If it survives 10, 000 years, people will have the same perspective of our era as we have of the end of the ice age. If it survives any shorter period of time, it would serve as a reminder to humans (Maybe not even humans? can we guarantee that?) of the meaning of those fragile initial conditions. That the far future is, in fact, chaotic.

8 comments to Clock of the Long Now

  • Erin Finnegan

    This was awesome, and now I totally want to read this book.

    I especially like this: “…built a component that wouldn’t complete a cycle until 25 thousand years have passed.” !!! How does the Strasbourg clock keep those 400 year gears from rusting?

    I’ve given a lot of though about what sort of knowledge might survive a potential Dark Age (or the next Ice Age or whathaveyou). What books would be left if only a few households were uncovered in the ruins of North America years from now? The Bible and a handful of Harry Potter sets?

    One of my dream projects is to create a (best selling) book called “In Case of Apocalypse, Read This” or something along those lines. It ought to have relatively water proof pages and contain scientific and other information that would be hard to re-discover, like, say, the structure of DNA, the speed of light, a modern Rosetta Stone table for major language groups, and practical information about how to purify water. If enough households have such a book it’d be a boon for future archeologists. Now to find a publisher…

  • Myriam Melki

    Omer, impressive post. I love the idea of building for posterity. We all think of the “now” when we design something. And to this day, we are still fascinated by the idea of immortality; immortality is fascinating in that it’s a way of escaping death, escaping forgetfulness, defying time. How many movie directors, writers, artists have attempted to defy time. How many time machines have been built in the fictional realm? A hundred? Maybe more… While reading your response, I realized that this Strasbourg clock was, in a way, a time machine of its own. It was built many generations ago, and it was built to last. It was built for prosperity. And the idea of having a possible new clock based on boolean logic, that could probably last as long or even longer is daunting. Opening it to the public is another interesting aspect. How I would love to read a book in a large-scale computer meant to last 10 000 years! Thanks Omer for your post :)

  • Nancy

    Great project.. First work on how it will be saved/preserved.. then the content! Think of what we sent into space forSETI to let any ET’s we might find who we are…. So how we would save the book and what we should save in it.–go for it, Erin!

  • Nancy

    Great post, Omer. You write enthusiastically and well. I can’t really tell what is from the book and what you have brought to us from your awesome store of knowledge.

  • Yang Wang

    Looks very cool, although I cannot understand what they are…

  • Yang Wang

    And you guys must be interested in Immanuel Kant’s theory about space and time, read his masterpiece ‘Kritik der reinen Vernunft’ to know more :)

  • Omer Shapira

    Well, the reason the clock stopped operating is because of the gears breaking. Mathematically the gear ratios might have been sound, but here, again, we find the exact same problem we find with the forgetful humanity: no documentations existed. Everytime the clock core was built, it was built from scratch, all of the mechanics reimagined, because that’s much easier than trying to dig in to the inventor’s mind.

    You’ll still find that sort of problem in every place, even those who sanctify knowledge. The Quaternions, for example, which are an elegant way of representing rotations in three dimension, were heavily researched in the nineteenth century. They were a part of engineers daily lives, and even a part of culture:

    “If you were a vector, mademoiselle, you would begin in the ‘real’ world, change your length, enter an ‘imaginary’ reference system, rotate up to three different ways, and return to ‘reality’ a new person. Or vector…”
    (Thomas Pincheon, “Against the Day”, written in 2006, takes place in 1893)

    Then, at the end of the 19th century, they stopped being cool. Linear Algebra, for all the mainstream uses of that time, was much easier for engineers to understand, and it could do the same thing, even if it was in an awkward way. Quaternions were abandoned.

    In the mid 20th century, with increasingly complex multi-axis machinery, they started making sense again. But that heavily researched topic was as good as dead for any practical applications. Even with all the dusty books about the subject waiting in libraries, not too many minds with active knowledge on the subject existed. Quaternions had to be re-researched with a terrible scarcity of knowledgeable people, just because of 5-6 decades of not being cool. They are quite popular now, as lots of 3D game designers and even some people in ITP may testify.

    We lose significant amounts of our collective knowledge every decade. Books and disciplines fall out of grace in an increasingly rapid pace, only to be forgotten throughout time. Often, like in this case, it’s not something as simple as a how-to manual.

    And sometimes, knowledge doesn’t even start out too prevalent. The Boston Globe recently ran an article about a Japanese professor who proved the ABC conjecture, an idea with huge implications in Mathematics. In order to do that he invented several of his own disciplines in Mathematics. They would probably take years to study, and no one is willing to put in that time:

    “Mathematics is very painful to read, even for mathematicians. Most mathematicians, even people who have the necessary background knowledge in general arithmetic geometry, it’s hard to convince them to put in the energy and time to read the paper.”

    That means, essentially, that even if the knowledge exists on paper, it hasn’t really been discovered. This happens to us every decade, more times than you would think. Think about that for a while and you’ll be furious at mankind.

  • Omer Shapira

    I really wish the clock/library would be as big as a canyon. It makes sense to me that in a computer as large is earth, there would be something at least 0.001 % large just for keeping time.